Issue 20 - Article 18

The German humanitarian system

May 7, 2002
Wolf-Dieter Eberwein

Germany is one of the world’s largest donors of international development aid, with a well-developed institutional structure. Yet the country is a comparatively small donor of humanitarian assistance, and humanitarian issues have failed to capture the political or public imagination

In the past three decades, Germany’s humanitarian actors, both governmental and non-governmental, have undergone two distinct phases of change. The first, in the 1960s and 1970s, was a function of changes in the type and frequency of disasters. The second was a consequence of German unification and the collapse of communism, which compelled policy-makers to redefine Germany’s international role, including in the humanitarian sphere.

In contrast to most other Development Assistance Committee (DAC) countries, official emergency relief has been kept institutionally separate from development aid. Since the late 1970s, the Foreign Office, in the form of the Department of the United Nations, Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, has had exclusive responsibility for international emergency relief and its coordination. The department has a Working Staff of 22 and a budget of 30–35 million euros ($26–30m), and finances projects in about 70 states per year. For specific emergencies that exceed available resources, such as the Kurdish refugee crisis or the wars in the Balkans, additional resources come from a general budget line, which the Finance Minister controls. In major emergencies, the Working Staff has set up bureaux abroad to facilitate coordination on the ‘frontline’. The Foreign Office representative for human rights and humanitarian affairs is located at the executive level. This means that he or she can define the role of humanitarian aid in German foreign policy. Since 1998, this position has been filled by Gerd Poppe, a one-time East German dissident and member of parliament.

Subsidiarity and independence

The process of institutional adjustment in the German political system has involved a series of incremental decisions in the search for policy coherence. Thus, as elsewhere in the West there has been a tendency to regard aid as one element of foreign policy, and linked to activities such as conflict prevention. At the same time, the core principle of the government’s ‘humanitarian philosophy’ is subsidiarity. This means that the government respects – in theory at least – the impartiality and neutrality of the non-governmental actors responsible for providing emergency relief. The government should only become directly involved when NGOs are unable to handle an emergency.

The subsidiarity principle has found its institutional counterpart in the Coordination Committee for Humanitarian Aid. The Committee has 26 members, including federal ministries, federal states, specialists and major NGOs. It meets every two months, although in specific emergencies a sub-group convenes on an ad hoc basis. The Committee also comes together for thematic workshops, usually once a year. The Coordination Committee has streamlined the allocation of funds when emergencies occur. Funding is provided rapidly, and administrative procedures are simple. Committee members have also been active in setting standards for their own work. They have agreed to a 12-point voluntary code of conduct for humanitarian action, strongly influenced by the Code of Conduct issued by the ICRC, as well as rules for the delivery of drugs. In principle, the Committee is open to every professional humanitarian agency. It has developed criteria for the admission of new members, among them that the applicant must be a professional humanitarian agency, and must have been active in the field for at least five years.

The expansion of the military role

The role of the military in humanitarian affairs has become a central issue since the war in Kosovo, which was the first out-of-area mission for the German military. There is strong advocacy on this, especially in the army’s civil–military branch, located at Koblenz. The issue is also controversial among humanitarian agencies, and there has been heated debate over the delimitation of humanitarian and military spheres. A special commission has been set up to formulate rules defining the proper roles of both actors, but has yet to come to a workable compromise. On the military side, the argument is focused on the technical performance of the military; for the humanitarians, the argument is based on humanitarian principles. Politically, a humanitarian role for the military seems desirable as it enhances the visibility of Germany’s humanitarian engagement. At this point, however, it seems that the military is reconsidering its initial position, and is perhaps playing down its potential humanitarian role.

Funding patterns

Although the Foreign Office has exclusive institutional competence for emergency relief, funding is split between the Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The regular budget figures for both ministries vary between a low of roughly DM100,000m in 1976, and a maximum of around DM265,000m in 1990. In 1999, the figure was DM175,000m. The percentage available to the Foreign Office for emergency relief has been steadily growing since the mid-1970s, from a low of around 17% to 29% by 2000. Following the overall international pattern, federal funding tends to emphasise bilateral projects. In addition, the federal states (the Länder) spent an estimated DM14m between 1994 and 1997 (which is the most recent year for which figures are available). This has probably a very limited impact, and tends to be more a kind of ad hoc support for specific local constituencies.

Conceptual weaknesses and public apathy

In formal and institutional terms, the German humanitarian system is relatively well-developed. Structures are in place at the administrative, executive and parliamentary levels, and the major NGOs have formalised channels of access to the political system. Even if in practice the tendency is towards the instrumentalisation of aid as an element of German foreign policy and conflict prevention, continuous reference is nonetheless made to the principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality, both in relation to humanitarian agencies, and to guide donor policy.

In practice, however, things are different. The government has never really bothered to develop a coherent policy on humanitarian aid, and officials and the general public have generally had little interest in the subject. Gerd Poppe, for instance, is virtually unknown to the public. The German parliament’s Committee for Humanitarian Aid and Human Rights, established in 1992, has from the outset been predominantly preoccupied with human rights, and specifically humanitarian matters have not been considered worthy of a session or a special hearing. The Committee’s political impact is limited because it cannot take binding decisions. The representatives of the different government agencies always operate under the prerogative of the political directives of their superiors. Basic problems related to humanitarian aid therefore cannot be decided at this level; to give one example of what this means in practice, 18 months’ effort to try to agree general principles guiding the relationship between the military and humanitarian NGOs have so far failed.

While issues to do with development, human rights and conflict attract political and wider attention, the humanitarian constituency in Germany is virtually non-existent. There is no intellectual community and informed public debate is absent. The association of German development NGOs, VENRO, is probably the only place where humanitarian issues are discussed in a more-or-less systematic fashion. Apart from a handful of PhD students scattered around the country, the Science Centre for Social Research in Berlin is the only place where systematic research on humanitarian problems takes place. Humanitarian NGOs have likewise shown scant interest in debating issues around aid. Their ability to cooperate and reach consensus is limited given their differing political, ideological, philosophical or religious backgrounds. This also explains why they differ conceptually, in particular with respect to the linkage between rehabilitation and development.

As elsewhere in the West, humanitarian issues gain prominence only in exceptional circumstances, when major crises erupt and attract media attention. This is high noon for charity, when the public and politicians alike discover humanitarian action. According to Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, media pressure ‘forced’ the German government to send helicopters to Mozambique following floods there in early 2000. This expensive action came too late and was, according to specialists, superfluous. Another case in point is the delivery of frozen beef to North Korea in 2001. Again, this costly decision was taken against the advice of specialists. Conversely, media attention seems to do little to help most NGOs raise funds; Germany’s church organisations and the Red Cross enjoy an almost exclusive monopoly on access to the two official television stations, while other agencies rarely feature.


Although structurally distinct, Germany’s humanitarian system by and large suffers from the same kinds of problems as those in other countries. The military is increasingly intruding into what has traditionally been humanitarian space, the public and politicians generally appear disinterested in humanitarian issues until they grab headlines and television time, and there is very little effective thinking about humanitarianism and what it means today.

Wolf-Dieter Eberwein is leader of the Working Group on International Politics at the Science Centre for Social Research, Berlin; and Professor of Political Science at the University of Leipzig. His e-mail address is:


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